Personal Essays

“Plan to live a full life because we very well may make it to 100”—my mom

“Plan to live a full life because we very well may make it to 100”—my mom

Sophia Shaw
Managing Partner

Today, my 50th birthday, the phrase “listen to your mother” takes on renewed meaning.

Too often, I feel like I am dutifully enduring life, rather than enjoying it as much as I could be. The amount of “worry energy” I expend every day—about issues of real substance as well as about matters outside of my control—can be draining.

So, in honor of this milestone birthday, I decided to revisit a lesson my mother tried her best to teach me exactly 31 years ago: “Plan to live a full life because we very well may make it to 100.” While at age 19 it was impossible to wrap my mind around the thought of living to 100, it is not so wild an idea for a healthy and fortunate 50-year old woman.

On the evening of January 8, 1988, my 19th birthday, my mom asked me to put on a dress for a visit with a neighbor I had never met before. We were going to walk down our Key West lane to meet Adele Saul, who was 100 years old.

My mother was 42 when she first had met Mrs. Saul, not too long before my birthday visit. Mrs. Saul had invited her in for tea late one morning which, according to my mother’s memory, turned out to be a martini. Looking at my mother with with a very steady gaze, Mrs. Saul had asked, “Joanne, how old are you?” After my mother replied, “I am 42,” the next question was, “Joanne, what are you going to do with the next 60 years of your life?” That question stopped my mother cold and made her think because even though my mother had earned a graduate degree in anthropology from Northwestern University and had enjoyed a successful career in the U.S. Agency for International Development, she had never pursued her dream to become an engineer or architect. Why? Because she believed that she lacked any talent for math and had avoided math-related classes after high-school. Like so many young women of her time, she was not given the encouragement or support to overcome these fears.

However, following tea with Mrs. Saul, my mom made a bold move: she studied two weeks straight for the Algebra 101 entrance exam at Key West Community College. After just barely gaining entry to the class, she “tore her hair out for the semester,” and got an A that changed her life. That A in Algebra in Key West led her to additional classes in math and eventually civil engineering at Florida International University in Miami, followed by a remarkable series of international adventures as an engineer and anthropologist employed both for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Bechtel. Mrs. Saul would have been proud; I researched her obituary, and according to the New York Times, Adele Scott Saul was a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, artist, and college board member. And, in 1940, she was the first woman in Philadelphia to run for Congress—when she was 53.

Sophoa and Mrs. Saul in 1988I don’t remember what I talked about with Mrs. Saul in 1988, but I am positive that I believed the evening would never cross my mind again. (My mom remembers my response to her at the time: “Mom, I have to tell you, 100 or 60…it all looks the same to me!”) The fact that I am writing about this now offers simple lessons about time (how our perspectives change), about parenting (even if our teenagers roll their eyes, we must expose them to new places and people), and about life (which comes into new focus facing into a big birthday).

While my mother interpreted Mrs. Saul’s challenge in a way that led to a new career, the charge I will take for myself is different. In my 51st year, I hope to continue to make progress in my efforts to enjoy a “full life” by:

  • Continuing to face, and then let go of, the pain I experienced in my distant past;
  • More profoundly believing in my own kindness and value;
  • Using my newfound voice to not allow anyone to bully me into believing I am less than a whole-souled woman;
  • Attempting to see the world from a point of view more similar to that of my cheerful husband, who consistently faces with world with youthful enthusiasm, always finding the bright side; and
  • Shining a light of optimism about the world’s future onto my teenage sons, whose qualities of keen observation, humor, and compassion I admire more than they will ever know.

On a more mundane level, I am also going to train for a triathlon and try to make it through a round of golf without falling into a deep funk!

My first 50 years were filled with experiences and accomplishments that many of us feel that we are required to do. So, now if I actually end up doubling the number of years I have already spent on earth, what will define me and make me—and others—happy in the days and years to come? How will I bring my very best joyous, kind self to my family, clients, and very importantly, to my inspiring Kellogg MBA students? How will I say goodbye to my fears and take full advantage of the great opportunities that lay out in front of me like a vast open runway on a cloudless day? What steps will I take to be able to enjoy a larger percentage of life rather than setting up my tomorrows as challenges and appointments to “get through?”

While I realize that figuring out the answer to these questions is a process that will take the better part of any number of future days I may be fortunate enough to enjoy, my pledge to myself this year is to embrace the challenge of trying.

Mom, even though it took 31 years to understand the lesson you were trying to teach me, thank you for giving me not only the gift of life and love, but also such enduring advice.

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